Follow the Drinking Gourd was first published in 1928. The song collector who published it said he heard it from others, but most students of folk song and spiritual songs think at best he was exaggerating, as the circumstances seemed unlikely and no other collector ever seems to have heard it.
Peg-Leg Joe seems to also be the stuff of legends, much like Paul Bunyan and Mike Fink. There may have been such a person, or perhaps he just grew around out of stories told. It would seem like a peg-leg would be too easily identifiable to make him an effective conductor on the Underground Railroad, but perhaps clever travellers and conductors made the story up to misdirect slave-catchers and others wishing ill to freedom seekers. That's mere speculation, but who knows?
What isn't mythical is that the North Star, seen in the dipper or drinking gourd constellation, was important to enslaved Black Americans before and after freedom. They used it practically as a compass to help them to make it freedom in the north. They used it symbolically. As a symbol it inflamed imaginations, inspired hearts, spurred hopes, infused dreams. It was claimed that every enslaved mother taught her child to identify the North Star as early as possible.
Charles Ball in his account of years of slavery and his escape to freedom (written with the help of a friendly abolitionist, as literacy was denied Ball by law for fifty years of his life) references the practical use of the North Star:
" I now began to feel the want of shoes, mine having long since been worn out, my boots also beginning to fail so much I was obliged to bind straps of hickory bark about them to keep them from falling to pieces. It was now November and I was yet in South Carolina. I determined to abandon the roads altogether and advanced steadily. though slowly. for four or five nights. setting my face to the north star when I was again delayed by dark weather and kept in idleness nearly two weeks. On the second night after this, my course was arrested by a broad and rapid river, which I believed to be the Catawba. This I crossed by swimming, resting at some large rocks near the middle. I now considered myself in North Carolina. The month of November is always a season of clouds and vapours, but at this time the fine weather vanished early in the month and all the clouds of the universe seemed to have collected in North Carolina. From the second night after passing the Catawba I did not see the north star for three weeks, and in that time made no progress..."
John Pierpoint, staunch abolitionist and popular antebellum period American poet, used it in his poem about slavery*:
|Star of the North, I look to thee||20|
|While on I press; for well I know|
|Thy light and truth shall set me free;—|
|Thy light, that no poor slave deceiveth;|
|Thy truth, that all my soul believeth.|
Below are a few samples taken from the book, The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others Or Witnessed by the Author : Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers of the Road. This book written by William Still, a freeborn black man from the north, secretary of The Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery's Vigilance Committee, I believe sometimes treasurer, and frequent funder of Harriet Tubman and others on the Underground Rail Road. He seems to have been quite a remarkable man in his own right, and was uniquely positioned to note the accounts of the men and women who took their fredom in their own hands and made the harrowing journey North to freedom.
In the preface he explains: "In these Records will be found interesting narratives of the escapes of many men, women and children, from the prison-house of bondage; from cities and plantations; from rice swamps and cotton fields; from kitchens and mechanic shops; from Border States and Gulf States; from cruel masters and mild masters; — some guided by the north star alone, penniless, braving the perils of land and sea, eluding the keen scent of the blood-hound as well as the more dangerous pursuit of the savage slave-hunter; some from secluded dens and caves of the earth where for months and years they had been hidden away waiting for the chance to escape; from mountains and swamps, where indescribable suffering from hunger and other privations had patiently been endured."
Still relates the account of Edward and his two brothers, held in bondage by the same man. Upon discovered they had been sold away down south, they were "Moved almost to desperation at their master's course in thus selling them, the three brothers after reflection determined to save themselves if possible, and without any definite knowledge of the journey, they turned their eyes towards the North Star, and under the cover of night they started for_Pennsylvania, not knowing whether they would ever see the goodly land of freedom..."
In another account he says, "The Vigilance Committee for aiding and befriending fugitives" held regular meetings but could not hold them "too publicly, as we almost always had some of the travelers toward the north star present whose masters or their agents were frequently in the city in hot pursuit. "
I can find few better examples to illustrate just how much import the north star had in inspiring and sparking the flames of imagination in those seeking freedom than the fact that Frederick Douglass named his abolitionist paper The North Star. You can read the introductory article and search for others at this very informative website.
Found at Mudcat (where many informative discussions of folk songs are held):
Botkin, B.A. 1944. A Treasury of Southern Folklore. Crown Publishers, NY. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" was first documented by a folklorist, H.B. Parks, in Texas. His account of discovering the song and the story behind it are difficult to obtain ("Follow the Drinking Gourd." 1928. Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, Frank Dobie, ed). Botkin's account of the song is essentially a reprint of Park's publication.
Parks records the story by "an old Negro" he met at College Station, Texas (date not given) as follows:
One of my [i.e., Park's] great-uncles, who was connected with the railroad movement, remembered that in the records of the Anti-Slavery Society there was a story of a peg-legged sailor, known as Peg-Leg Joe, who made a number of trips through the South and induced young Negroes to run away and escape through the North to Canada....
The story behind the song seems to have mainly come from the anonymous "old Negro.""
Parks also said that the first time he heard the song sung in 1912:
"It is very doubtful if this part of the song would have attracted anyone's attention had not the old grandfather, who had been sitting on a block of wood in front of the cabin, slowly got up and, taking his cane, giving the boy a sound lick across the back with the admonition not to sing that song again. This excited my curiosity and I asked the old man why he did not want the boy to sing the song. The only answer I could get was that it was bad luck"
Like George Washington's little axe and the cherry tree, the song of the drinking gourd may be somewhat apocryphal, but then again, they both may be more of an exaggeration than an apocryphal tale, and both tell us something deep, rich, and meaningful about the people who hold the stories dear.
You can read William Still's inspiring account of escapes on the underground rail-road online free here: https://archive.org/stream/undergroundrailr1872stil/undergroundrailr1872stil_djvu.txt
You can buy a text or an audible version here: https://amzn.to/2YHnn7f
A short review of one of the drinking gourd picture books and some other Black history and stories to read here.
These are all valuable additions to your family reading and singing. However, let me also suggest that you do not let all or even the majority of the stories your kids read about Black Americans be about slavery. There should be a healthy number of good stories about regular black kids having regular black lives and regular black kid story adventures as well as biographies about black Americans known for other accomplishments. Some recommended books at that link, and I'd like to make an extra plug for WHOOSH!.
Taj Mahal sings it here (an Amazon song you can download)
Kim and Reggie Harris sing it here (.99 to download)
For more about why this is a valuable song (it was important to the Civil Rights activists) even though its origins are not reliable here. It's great folklore. It's not strictly underground railroad history.
*John Pierpont- in a strange twist, while John was so strongly anti-slavery, James Lord Pierpont,one of his sons, widowed and failed in business left his children to his father to rear, moved to Georgia, remarried and began a second family, wrote minstrel songs, and when the Civil War began he wrote pro-confederate songs and joined the Confederate Army, even as his 76 y.o. father served as a Chaplain in the Union Army (which proved too taxing for Pierpont Senior's health, so he retired and worked for the Post Office). James Lord Pierpont, author of minstrel and pro-confederate songs, also wrote Jingle Bells.